[Tappan Introduction] Even after Napoleon had overthrown the armies of Spain and
Portugal, these countries refused to yield to his authority. Wellington with British
troops came to their aid. He crossed the Douro River, captured Oporto, and pursued the
French forces on their retreat over the mountains into Spain.
NEVER did the morning break more beautifully than on the 12th of May, 1809. Huge masses
of fog-like vapor had succeeded to the starry, cloudless night, but one by one they moved
onwards towards the sea, disclosing as they passed long tracts of lovely country, bathed
in a rich golden glow. The broad Douro, with its transparent current, shone out like a
bright-colored ribbon, meandering through the deep garment of fairest green; the darkly
shadowed mountains which closed the background loomed even larger than they were; while
their summits were tipped with the yellow glory of the morning. The air was calm and
still, and the very smoke that arose from the peasant's cot labored as it ascended through
the perfumed air, and save the ripple of the stream all was silent as the grave.
The squadron of the Fourteenth, with which I was, had diverged from the road beside the
river, and to obtain a shorter path, had entered the skirts of a dark pine wood; our pace
was a sharp one; an orderly had been already dispatched to hasten our arrival, and we
pressed on at a brisk trot. In less than an hour we reached the verge of the wood, and as
we rode out upon the plain, what a spectacle met our eyes! Before us, in a narrow valley,
separated from the river by a low ridge, were picketed three cavalry regiments; their
noiseless gestures and perfect stillness bespeaking at once that they were intended for a
surprise party. Farther down the stream, and upon the opposite side, rose the massive
towers and tall spires of Oporto, displaying from their summits the broad ensign of
France; while far as the eye could reach, the broad dark masses of troops might be seen;
the intervals between their columns glittering with the bright equipments of their
cavalry, whose steel caps and lances were sparkling in the sunbeams. The bivouac fires
were still smouldering, and marking where some part of the army had passed the night; for
early as it was, it was evident that their position had been changed; and even now, the
heavy masses of dark infantry might be seen moving from place to place, while the long
line of the road to Vallonga was marked with a vast cloud of dust. The French drum and the
light infantry bugle told, from time to time, that orders were passing among the troops;
while the glittering uniform of a staff officer, as he galloped from the town, bespoke the
note of preparation.
"Dismount! steady; quietly, my lads," said the colonel, as he alighted upon
the grass. "Let the men have their breakfast." The little amphitheater we
occupied hid us entirely from all observation on the part of the enemy, but equally so
excluded us from perceiving their movements. It may readily be supposed then, with what
impatience we waited here, while the din and clangor of the French force, as they marched
and countermarched so near us, were clearly audible. The orders were, however, strict that
none should approach the bank of the river, and we lay anxiously awaiting the moment when
this inactivity should cease. More than one orderly had arrived among us, bearing
dispatches from headquarters; but where our main body was, or what the nature of the
orders, no one could guess. As for me, my excitement was at its height, and I could not
speak for the very tension of my nerves. The officers stood in little groups of two and
three, whispering anxiously together; but all I could collect was, that Soult had already
begun his retreat upon Amarante, and that, with the broad stream of the Douro between us,
he defied our pursuit.
"Well, Charley," said Power, laying his arm upon my shoulder, "the
French have given us the slip this time; they are already in march, and even if we dared
force a passage in the face of such an enemy, it seems there is not a boat to be found. I
have just seen Hammersley." "Indeed! Where is he?" said I. "He's gone
back to Villa do Conde; he asked after you most particularly. Don't blush, man; I'd rather
back your chance than his, notwithstanding the long letter that Lucy sends him. Poor
fellow, he has been badly wounded, but, it seems, declines going back to England."
"Captain Power," said an orderly, touching his cap, "General Murray
desires to see you." Power hastened away, but returned in a few moments. "I say,
Charley, there's something in the wind here. I have just been ordered to try where the
stream is fordable. I've mentioned your name to
the general, and I think you'll be sent for
I buckled on my sword, and looking to my girths, stood watching the groups around me;
when suddenly a dragoon pulled his horse up short, and asked a man if Mr. O'Malley was there. "Yes;
I am he." "Orders from General Murray, sir," said the man, and rode off at a canter. I
opened and saw that the dispatch was addressed to Sir Arthur Wellesley, with the mere
words, "With haste!" on the enevelope.
Now, which way to turn I knew not; so, springing into the saddle, I galloped to where
Colonel Merivale was standing talking to the colonel of a heavy dragoon regiment. "May I ask, sir, by which road I am to proceed
with this dispatch?" "Along the river, sir," said the heavy, ---a large, dark-browed man,
with a most forbidding look. "You'll soon see the troops; you'd better stir yourself, sir, or Sir Arthur is not
very likely to be pleased with you."
Without venturing a reply to what I felt a somewhat unnecessary taunt, I dashed spurs
into my horse, and turned toward the river. I had not gained the bank above a minute, when
the loud ringing of a rifle struck upon my ear; bang went another, and another. I hurried
on, however, at the top of my speed, thinking only of my mission and its pressing haste.
As I turned an angle of the stream, the vast column of the British came in sight, and
scarcely had my eye rested upon them when my horse staggered forwards, plunged twice with
his head nearly to the earth, and then, rearing madly up, fell backwards to the ground.
Crushed and bruised as I felt by my fall, I was soon aroused to the necessity of exertion;
for as I disengaged myself from the poor beast, I discovered he had been killed by a
bullet in the counter; and scarcely had I recovered my legs when a shot struck my shako
and grazed my temples. I quickly threw myself to the ground, and, creeping on for some
yards, reached at last some rising ground, from which I rolled gently downwards into a
little declivity, sheltered by the bank from the French fire.
When I arrived at headquarters, I was dreadfully fatigued and heated; but resolving not
to rest till I had delivered my dispatches, I hastened towards the convent of La Sierra,
where I was told the commander-in-chief was. As I came into the court of the convent,
filled with general officers and people of the staff, I was turnig to ask how I should
proceed, when Hixley caught my eye. "Well,
O'Malley, what brings you here?" "Dispatches
from General Murray." "Indeed; oh, follow me." He hurried me rapidly through the buzzing
crowd, and ascending a large gloomy staif, introduced me into a room, where about a dozen
persons in uniform were writing at a long deal table.
"Captain Gordon," said he, addressing one of them, "dispatches requiring immediate attention have
just been brought in by this officer." Before the sentence was finished, the door opened, and a short, slight man, in a gray
undress coat, with a white cravat, and a cocked hat, entered. The dead silence that ensued
was not necessary to assure me that he was one in authority,---the look of command his
bold, stern features presented; the sharp, piercing eye, the compressed lip, the
impressive expression of the whole face, told plainly that he was one who held equally
himself and others in mastery.
"Send General Sherbroke here," said he to an aide-de-camp. "Let the
light brigade march into position;" and then, turning suddenly to me, "Whose
dispatches are these?" " General Murray's, sir."
I needed no more than that look to assure me that this was he of whom I had heard so
much, and of whom the world was still to hear so much more. He opened them quickly, and
glancing his eye across the contents, crushed the paper in his hand. Just as he did so, a
spot of blood upon the envelope attracted his attention.
"How 's this,---are you wounded?" "No, sir; my horse was killed---"
"Very well, sir; join your brigade. But stay, I shall have orders for you. Well,
Waters, what news?" This question was addressed to an officer in a staff uniform, who
entered at the moment, followed by the short and bulky figure of a monk, his shaven crown
and large cassock strongly contrasting with the gorgeous glitter of the costumes around
him. "I say, whom have we here?" "The Prior of Amarante, sir," replied
Waters, "who has just come over. We have already, by his aid, secured three large
"Let the artillery take up positions in the convent at once," said Sir
Arthur, interrupting. "The boats will be brought round to the small creek beneath the
orchard. You, sir," turning to me, "will convey to General Murray---but you
appear weak. You, Gordon, will desire Murray to effect a crossing at Avintas with the
Germans and the 14th. Sherbroke's division will occupy the Villa Nuova. What number of men
can that seminary take?" "From three to four hundred, sir. The padre mentions
that all the vigilance of the enemy is limited to the river below the town." "I
perceive it," was the short reply of Sir Arthur, as, placing his hands carelessly
behind his back, he walked towards the window, and looked out upon the river.
All was still as death in the chamber; not a lip murmured. The feeling of respect for
him in whose presence we were standing checked every thought of utterance; while the
stupendous gravity of the events before us engrossed every mind and occupied every heart.
I was standing near the window; the effect of my fall had stunned me for a time, but I was
gradually recovering, and watched with a thrilling heart the scene before me. Great and
absorbing as was my interest in what was passing without, it was nothing compared with
what I felt as I looked at him upon whom our destiny was then hanging. I had ample time to
scan his features and canvass their every lineament. Never before did I look upon such
perfect impassibility; the cold, determined expression was crossed by no show of passion
or impatience. All was rigid and motionless, and whatever might have been the workings of
the spirit within, certainly no external sign betrayed them; and yet what a moment for him
must that have been! Before him, separated by a deep and rapid river, lay the conquering
legions of France, led on by one second alone to him whose very name had been the prestige
of victory. Unprovided with every regular means of transport, in the broad glare of day,
in open defiance of their serried ranks and thundering artillery, he dared the deed. What
must have been his confidence in the soldiers he commanded! What must have been his
reliance upon his own genius! As such thoughts rushed through my mind, the door opened and
an officer entered hastily, and, whispering a few words to Colonel Waters, left the room.
"One boat is already brought up to the crossing-place, and entirely concealed by the
wall of the orchard." "Let the men cross," was the brief reply. No other
word was spoken as, turning from the window, he closed his telescope, and followed by all
the others, descended to the courtyard. This simple order was enough; an officer with a
company of the Buffs embarked, and thus began the passage of the Douro.
So engrossed was I in my vigilant observation of our leader, that I would gladly have
remained at the convent, when I received an order to join my brigade, to which a
detachment of artillery was already proceeding. As I reached Avintas all was in motion.
The cavalry was in readiness beside the river; but as yet no boats had been discovered,
and such was the impatience of the men to cross, it was with difficulty they were
prevented trying the passage by swimming, when suddenly Power appeared, followed by
several fishermen. Three or four small skiffs had been found, half sunk in mud, among the
rushes, and with such frail assistance we commenced to cross. "There will be
something to write home to Galway soon, Charley, or I'm terribly mistaken," said
Fred, as he sprang into the boat beside me. "Was I not a true prophet when I told you >We'd meet the French in the morning'?" "They're at it already," said Hixley, as a wreath of blue smoke floated across
the stream below us, and the loud boom of a large gun resounded through the air.
Then came a deafening shout, followed by a rattling volley of small arms, gradually
swelling into a hot sustained fire, through which the cannon pealed at intervals. Several
large meadows lay along the riverside, where our brigade was drawn up as the detachments
landed from the boats; and here, although nearly a league distant from the town, we now
heard the din and crash of battle, which increased every moment. The cannonade from the
Sierra convent, which at first was merely the fire of single guns, now thundered away in
one long roll, amidst which the sounds of falling walls and crashing roofs were mingled.
It was evident to us, from the continual fire kept up, that the landing had been effected;
while the swelling tide of musketry told that fresh troops were momentarily coming up. In
less than twenty minutes our brigade was formed, and we now only waited for two light
four-pounders to be landed, when an officer galloped up in haste, and called
out,---"The French are in retreat!" and pointing at the same moment to the
Vallonga road, we saw a long line of smoke and dust leading from the town, through which,
as we gazed, the colors of the enemy might be seen as they defiled, while the unbroken
lines of the wagons and heavy baggage proved that it was no partial movement, but the army
"Fourteenth, threes about! close up! trot!" called out the loud and manly
voice of our leader, and the heavy tramp of our squadrons shook the very ground as we
advanced towards the road to Vallonga.
As we came on, the scene became one of overwhelming excitement; the masses of the enemy
that poured unceasingly from the town could now be distinguished more clearly; and amidst
all the crash of gun-carriages and caissons, the voices of the staff officers rose high as
they hurried along the retreating battalions. A troop of flying artillery galloped forth
at top speed, and wheeling their guns into position with the speed of lightning, prepared,
by a flanking fire, to cover the retiring column. The gunners sprang from their seats, the
guns were already unlimbered, when Sir George Murray, riding up at our left, called
out,--- "Forward! close up! charge!"
The word was scarcely spoken when the loud cheer answered the welcome sound, and the
same instant the long line of shining helmets passed with the speed of a whirlwind; the
pace increased at every stride, the ranks grew closer, and like the dread force of some
mighty engine we fell upon the foe. I have felt all the glorious enthusiasm of a fox-hunt,
when the loud cry of the hounds, answered by the cheer of the joyous huntsman, stirred the
very heart within; but never till now did I know how far higher the excitement reaches,
when man to man, saber to saber, arm to arm, we ride forward to the battle-field. On we
went, the loud shout of "Forward!" still ringing in our cars. One broken,
irregular discharge from the French guns shook the head of our advancing column, but
stayed us not as we galloped madly on.
I remember no more. The din, the smoke! the crash, the cry for quarter, mingled with
the shout of victory, the flying enemy, the agonizing shrieks of the wounded; ---all are
commingled in my mind, but leave no trace of clearness or connection between them; and it
was only when the column wheeled to reform behind the advancing squadrons, that I awoke
from my trance of maddening excitement, and perceived that we had carried the position and
cut off the guns of the enemy. "Well done, Fourteenth," said an old gray-headed
colonel, as he rode along our line,---"gallantly done, lads!" The blood trickled
from a saber cut on his temple, along his cheek, as he spoke; but he either knew it not or
heeded it not.
"There go the Germans!" said Power, pointing to the remainder of our brigade,
as they charged furiously upon the French infantry, and rode them down in masses. Our guns
came up at this time, and a plunging fire was opened upon the thick and retreating ranks
of the enemy. The carnage must have been terrific, for the long breaches of their lines
showed where the squadrons of the cavalry had passed, or the most destructive tide of the
artillery had swept through them. The speed of the flying columns grew momentarily more;
the road became blocked up, too, by broken carriages and wounded; and to add to their
discomfiture, a damaging fire now opened from the town upon the retreating column, while
the brigade of Guards and the Twenty-ninth pressed hotly on their rear.
The scene was now beyond anything maddening in its interest. From the walls of Oporto
the English infantry poured forth in pursuit, while the whole riverwas covered with boats
as they still continued to cross over. The artillery thundered from the Sierra to protect
the landing, for it was even then contested in places; and the cavalry, charging in flank,
swept the broken ranks and bore down upon the squares. It was now, when the full tide of
victory ran highest in our favor, that we were ordered to retire from the road. Column
after column passed before us, unmolested and unassailed, and not even a cannon-shot
arrested their steps. Some unaccountable timidity of our leader directed this movement;
and while before our very eyes the gallant infantry were charging the retiring columns we
remained still and inactive.
How little did the sense of praise we had already won repay us for the shame and
indignation we experienced at this moment, as with burning cheek and compressed lip we
watched the retreating files. "What can he mean?" "Is there not some
mistake?" "Are we never to charge?" were the muttered questions around, as
a staff officer galloped up with the order to take ground still farther back, and nearer
to the river. The word was scarcely spoken when a young officer, in the uniform of a
general, dashed impetuously up; he held his plumed cap high above his head, as he called
out, "Fourteenth, follow me! Left face! wheel! charge!"
So, with the word, we were upon them. The French rear guard was at this moment at the
narrowest point of the road, which opened by a bridge upon a large open space; so that,
forming with a narrow front and favored by a declivity in the ground, we actually rode
them down. Twice the French formed, and twice were they broken. Meanwhile the carnage was
dreadful on both sides, our fellows dashing madly forward where the ranks were thickest,
the enemy resisting with the stubborn courage of men fighting for their last spot of
ground. So impetuous was the charge of our squadrons, that we stopped not till, piercing
the dense column of the retreating mass, we reached the open ground beyond. Here we
wheeled and prepared once more to meet them when suddenly some squadrons of cuirassiers
debouched from the road, and supported by a field-piece, showed front against us. This was
the moment that the remainder of our brigade should have come to our aid, but not a man
appeared. However, there was not an instant to be lost; already the plunging fire of the
four-pounder had swept through our files, and every moment increased our danger.
"Once more, my lads, forward! " cried out our gallant leader, Sir Charles
Stewart, as, waving his saber, he dashed into the thickest of the fray. So sudden was our
charge that we were upon them before they were prepared. And here ensued a terrific
struggle; for as the cavalry of the enemy gave way before us, we came upon the close ranks
of the infantry at half-pistol distance, who poured a withering volley into us as we
approached. But what could arrest the sweeping torrent of our brave fellows, though every
moment falling in numbers?
Harvey, our major, lost his arm near the shoulder. Scarcely an officer was not wounded.
Power received a deep saber-cut in the cheek from an aide-de-camp of General Foy, in
return for a wound he gave the general; while I, in my endeavor to save General Laborde
when unhorsed, was cut down through the helmet, and so stunned that I remembered no more
around me. I kept my saddle, it is true, but I lost every sense of consciousness, my first
glimmering of reason coming to my aid as I lay upon the river bank and felt my faithful
follower Mike bathing my temples with water, as he kept up a running fire of lamentations
for my being murthered so young.
"Are you better, Mister Charles? Spake to me, alanah! Say that you're not kilt,
darling; do now. Oh, wirra: what'll I ever say to the master? and you doing so beautiful!
Would n't he give the best baste in his stable to be looking at you to-day? There, take a
sup; it's only water. Bad luck to them, but it's hard work beating them. They 're only
gone now. That 's right; now you 're coming to." "Where am I, Mike?"
"It's here you are, darling, resting yourself." "Well, Charley, poor
fellow, you've got sore bones, too," cried Power, as, his face swathed in bandages
and covered with blood, he lay down on the grass beside me. " It was a gallant thing
while it lasted, but has cost us dearly. Poor Hixley---"
'What of him?" said I, anxiously. "Poor fellow, he has seen his last
battle-field! He fell across me as we came out upon the road. I lifted him up in my arms
and bore him along above fifty yards; but he was stone dead. Not a sigh, not a word
escaped him; shot through the forehead." As he spoke, his lips trembled, and his
voice sank to a mere whisper at the last words: "You remember what he said last
night. Poor fellow, he was every inch a soldier." Such was his epitaph.
I turned my head towards the scene of our late encounter. Some dismounted guns and
broken wagons alone marked the spot; while far in the distance, the dust of the retreating
columns showed the beaten enemy as they hurried towards the frontiers of Spain.